Last-Minute Advice for Elk Hunters

When you go after these big deer, it's a different ball game altogether. And here are the rules.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I have mixed feelings about last-minute advice, since much of it comes too late to be really helpful, and much of it is simply well meaning without imparting useful information. When I went off to college, my parents said, "Don't get pregnant," which I had no intention of doing anyway, and when I enlisted in the Army, the sergeant at the induction center said, "Remember, they can kill you, but they can't eat you," which was not terrifically enlightening. And when the bus rolled up to our basic training company, people yelled, "You'll be sorreee!" which was right on the money, but there wasn't a lot we could do about it.

This is almost the case with elk hunting. You may be on your way out there even as you read this, but even so, heed and attend. You don't know what lies ahead of you, and what follows may make a big difference.

You are probably not going to see a whole elk unless you get one on the ground. Elk get to be old by staying out of public places during hunting season. They are as cagey as whitetails about not giving you a good look.

However, they're easier to see than whitetails. A good-size bull elk goes 600 to 1,000 pounds, and unlike the monochromatic whitetail, it has a dark-brown mane, palomino body, and cream-colored rump. And then, of course, there are the antlers. Look for pieces of elk rather than the whole critter, and if you do happen to catch one in the open, consider yourself blessed.

Do not be mesmerized by visions of 1,000-pound elk carrying 7 ivory points on either side. There are not a lot of those around, and they tend to congregate on ranches where the trespass fees would buy a car. Shoot the first legal elk you see, and consider yourself a lucky hunter, because most people who go after the big deer go home skunked. In the early 1970s, Field & Stream published an article by Ed Park entitled "Any Elk Is a Good Elk" (reprinted in the September 1998 issue). It should be required reading by anyone who takes out an elk tag.

If you're not hunting with an outfitter (and even if you are), remember that Rocky Mountain weather is violently changeable, and that if your cold-weather gear is back in camp, it won't help very much when you're 10 miles away and a blizzard arrives. In Montana, one year in the 1970s, I saw the temperature drop from 50¿¿ and sunny in the morning to 10 below and snowing by dark. Carry warm clothes in a backpack or in your saddlebags. You can opt not to, and save the weight¿¿¿in which case they'll find your bones in the spring, after the snow melts.

Be respectful of the wilderness. One outfitter I used to hunt with had a friend whom he described as the best outdoorsman he had ever known. The friend died when he lost his seat in the saddle but his foot remained in the stirrup. His horse walked the 12 miles home to his corral, slowly dragging the man to death. The outfitter never got over it. "I love this country," he said, "but it scares the hell out of me."

Be prudent. Don't do dumb stuff. Don't try to prove anything. Your obituary may say you were a hell of a man, but you won't be there to read it.

Forget all the nonsense about one-shot kills, which has probably caused more animals to suffer than poor marksmanship. Elk are very tough animals. Unlike deer they can absorb a tremendous amount of punishment and still go very far very fast. It doesn't matter what rifle you're using; if there is any sign of life, shoot again. If the guide says no, he's finished, but you're not certain, shoot again.

Should you get an elk down, you will discover that getting one out by yourself is backbreaking work. An outfitter who has had lots of practice and uses packhorses will make it look like a snap, but if you and your friends have to do it and you're not 23 years old, I have a suggestion: Go down to the nearest town and hire someone to help.

Years ago, when I was young and tough, a friennd and I got an elk down in a horrendous canyon. But we did the smart thing: We went to the local university, found three strong, hungry undergrads, and traded them part of the meat for their labor. With five of us working, it became a manageable job.

If you are a whitetail hunter, you will have to break yourself of the still-hunting skills it took you so long to master. This nearly drove me mad when I began hunting elk. We walked and walked and walked, with none of the "take three slow steps, stop and look, take three slow steps" cadence I had learned. You are going to have to cover ground in order to see elk. A man on foot, in good shape, can do about 10 miles a day in the mountains, and double that if he's on horseback. And that is what you'll need to do-no less. If it means traveling from dark to dark, so be it. This is not an invitation to go crashing through the pines as fast as you can go, but the more ground you cover, the better.

If you're hunting with an outfitter, you'll have to observe the Code of the West, and this takes some explaining. The people who settled the West were hard cases-they had to be-and today, cowboys and big-game guides are their spiritual descendants. They are very tough characters, and they take their obligation to get you an elk very seriously. Toward that end, they are willing to kill themselves, and their horses, and you, if necessary.

In return, they ask that you observe Article III of the Code of the West, which says that you will not complain no matter how hard the going gets. Shut up and bear it; after all, you volunteered. If you bellyache about the lack of air and the cold and the homicidal horse you're riding and the fact that you can't play cards in the tent all afternoon the way you could back in deer camp, the outfitter probably won't say anything. But in his eyes, you will be a Tenderfoot of No Character. Better to die on the trail.

Article II of the Code of the West says that you help out when you can. You are not in camp to be waited on. There is plenty of work to go around, and if you can do some of it, why, feel free. You will probably not be asked to wrangle horses-that's skilled labor-but if you can cut firewood or carry water, it will be duly noted and appreciated.

Article I, the most important, says that you play what's dealt. You may not get an elk, even on a guided hunt for which you've paid a lot of money. That's the way it is. You shake the outfitter's hand, thank him for his hard work, and tip him if you're so inclined. He will not say much in the way of thanks (that's part of the Code also), but you will cease to be a pilgrim in his eyes and will become a Hand. Unless you win the Nobel Prize, you will not get any higher praise in this life.